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The General Services Agency isn’t familiar to many outside the Beltway. But rampant overspending at GSA has landed it in the national headlines – a new report details lavish spending that conflicts with the agency’s mission of keeping federal real estate costs down.
- Donald Kettl Dean, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland; nonresident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how social media are complicating and sometimes undermining courtroom procedures. But first, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay there. Excesses that seem reasonable may be even modest when you're surrounded by flashing neon signs and sequins galore can come back to haunt you.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe recently ousted leadership at the General Services Administration or GSA is learning that lesson in a very public way. The chief of the agency has stepped down, two deputies have been fired and four managers placed on leave. After an investigation of a 2010 Western Regional Conference found that much of almost the million dollar tab was excessive and wasteful. Whether it was the hiring of the clown or mind reader that officially put it over the top, we'll leave that to you.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut the odds are good that the fallout is going to go beyond the sensational headlines. Joining us to discuss this by phone from College Park, Md. is Donald Kettl. Don Kettl is the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and the nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Don Kettl, thank you for joining us.
MR. DON KETTLIt's great to be with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIFirst, Don, remind us of what the General Services Administration or GSA does exactly.
KETTLGSA is really the nation's landlord when the federal government needs to lease a building. And especially then when it wants to try to buy a lot of supplies that it needs to keep the government in business from staplers and pens to computers and other things. The GSA's in charge of the government's basic procurement operations. So it is really not only the nation's landlord but in some way the nation's warehouse
NNAMDIWhen Martha Johnson took the helm of the agency in February of 2010 she called ethics, quoting here "a big issue for me." Eight months later, the GSA spent over three-quarters of a million dollars on a conference for 300 people. Where is the disconnect?
KETTLYou know, it's a long way sometimes from Washington to the people out in the field who make these decisions. And this is just embarrassing by any stretch of the imagination. Now, as you said at the beginning, whether it's the mind reader or the clown or some of the group exercises devoted to trying to figure out how to put a bicycle together, it's just the kind of thing that is just tailor-made for attack commercials out there. It sounds silly, it looks silly and unquestionably a waste of money. And it's, at the basic core, a problem of making policy in Washington and making sure that people out in the field get the word.
NNAMDI$835,000 in expenses on a meeting for 300 people that included multiple trips by GSA staff to scout pricy Vegas hotels, $3200 for the aforementioned mind reader for that meeting. If you have questions or comments about this GSA scandal, call us at 800-433-8850. What's your take on this report of excessive spending? You can also go to our website kojoshow.org. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or simply send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIWhen Congress returns from recess April 16, the public building subpanel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will be conducting a full hearing on this and other matters trying to hold GSA accountable for taxpayer waste and efficiency, that from Congressman John Mica, Florida Republican who is chairman of the full committee. You cannot say that was completely unexpected, can you, Don Kettl?
KETTLWell, this is one that you could've set a stopwatch on. There was just no doubt that the Republicans on Capitol Hill were going to be jumping all over this. This is tailor-made for a campaign commercial. It's tailor-made for the kinds of things that members of the Congress love, which is finding silly things and shining a spotlight on it in a way that catches incredible amounts of attention.
KETTLAnd make no mistake about it, this was just a very stupid collection of decisions that were made. And GSA simply shouldn't have done it, but it's now feeding the very people who have been arguing for a long time that the federal government is out there wasting our tax dollars. And it's just guaranteed to be the gift that keeps on giving on that argument for a long time.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned the gift that keeps on giving 'cause I'd like to know exactly how long is this particular gift likely to keep on giving. Any time government agencies and mind readers meet, the story's going to generate headlines. Given that we're in an election year, what do you see as the lifespan of this story?
KETTLWell, you could easily imagine this being a campaign commercial that the Republicans will be playing over and over and over again. I mean, what's not to love about this if you're putting commercials together, a combination of Las Vegas, clowns and mind readers and the waste of government money. You can just see this playing itself out. The Republicans have been arguing for a long time that the Obama Administration has not been doing a very good job of getting government spending under control. And you can see this is the back story for a commercial trying to make that point.
KETTLYou could really imagine if it's, for example, that Romney is making a point of this through campaign commercials all the way through November. This one is just not likely to go away any time soon.
NNAMDITaking a page maybe out of Ron Paul's book with his legion of devoted follows this sense that smaller government would be better government. That's a message that seems to be resonating very well with young voters.
KETTLWell, you know, it resonates incredibly well with voters in general and with young voters in particular. Barack Obama's been having a terrible time trying to get younger voters back onboard. They were a big difference maker for him back in 2008. He's had a hard time connecting with them now. And this is the kind of story that for young voters -- for all voters is likely to make them -- make it that much harder for the president to make a case that he's really got the government under control and is going to feed the argument that government can and should be made smaller.
NNAMDIRepresentative Mica also said that this Las Vegas fiasco is just the tip of the iceberg. He cited billions of dollars of misused funds and 14,000 vacant or under using buildings that the government owns. But there is the story and then there is the reality. Let's go to Nakata (sp?) in Dunn Loring, Va. Nakata, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Nakata.
NAKATAYeah, I mean, I thought it was a good -- I mean, I understand it's a big scandal and it's a big issue, but it's also less than a million dollars. And then for how much fraud and other allegations that's happened in the government, I think that for this to become a campaign issue for less than a million dollars, I think is a little ridiculous.
KETTLDon Kettl, the story about the $16 muffins, you remember that turned out to be not as sensational as it seemed at the time. Do you think this story may also be being blown out of proportion? Nakata says look we're talking less than a million dollars here.
KETTLWell, the muffin story turned out not to be a real story because the cost of room rental and other things were folded into the cost of the catering. So that story went away although people still remember the idea of the overpriced muffins. This story unfortunately seems to be real but the more important issue is what can we try to do to get the really important matters of government spending under control?
KETTLAnd if you're a policy analyst, if you're a government manager, if you're somebody interested as an ordinary citizen in trying to make sure that happens, the real problem is how do you make sure that you don't go, at this point, haywire trying to reign in every possible opportunity for making mistakes, and at the same time posing such costs on the business of doing government that you end up making it impossible to do anything?
KETTLThe real problem is that we have tens of billions of dollars in spending in Medicare that, for example, we need to get under control. But to do that we require really smart government people who are armed with the right kinds of tools to get the job done. And the risk here is that you could end up making everybody inside the government so gun shy that it becomes impossible for them to do what it is we really need for them to do. And we don't want to run the risk that trying to run a couple hundred thousand dollars of real waste out that we end up making it impossible to go after the billions of dollars that we really need to make sure that we recapture.
NNAMDIDonald Kettl is the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Don, between the sale of the old post office and the potential civilian (word?) the GSA has a lot going on. What's the fallout for that agency and others that could result from this?
KETTLNow the problem for GSA right now is that it's just essentially lost its top leadership. The top leadership's been decapitated through this very quick effort to try to make sure that there were heads rolling down the aisle to prevent attacks from people saying no heads have rolled.
KETTLBut GSA has got some very big things underway. As you point out there is the whole (word?) process, there is the issue of what we're going to do about the old post office building and how to try to convert that. There are buildings around the country that GSA's in the process of trying to deal with. It needs to try to make sure it manages and gets the very best price for government real estate everywhere for social security and IRS offices.
KETTLSo if you remove the top level of leadership you create the sense that members of congress are lurking around every corner waiting to try to catch somebody in the effort of spending money where they shouldn't. You put new rules and regulations that are designed to clamp down to make sure this doesn't happen again it could create a very real climate of fear inside the agency that could make it hard for it to do its business.
KETTLAnd make no mistake about it, we just don't want to be doing this kind of thing. We don't want to be out hiring clowns and mind readers and other things but at the same time we have to make very sure we don't make it impossible for government to do its business. And that's the real challenge that the new GSA leadership is going to have. And that's a big one that's only going to get more serious 'cause the headlines for this are going to keep rippling out for a long time.
NNAMDISpeaking of the new leadership, a guy with deep D.C. roots has been tapped as Johnson's replacement. What do you think this shakeup will mean for the city and the region? Moving into that position now is Dan Tangherlini. He's a former city administrator in the District of Columbia and he'd been serving as assistant secretary for management at the Department of the Treasury since 2009.
KETTLHe's got a good reputation. He had a good rap in the City of Washington for being a good manager. He's going to be brought in as a take-no-prisoners-take-charge-we're-gonna-get-this-straightened-out kind of guy. He has, by all accounts. the kind of reputation that you need to be able to do that. But he's going to have to do two things right off the bat. The first is to try to reassure a very nervous public and a very prone-to-attack-itchy-trigger-finger Congress that it is going to be there -- he's going to be there ready to try to make sure that the situation's under control.
KETTLBut he's got to also find a way to instill confidence inside this agency very quickly and ensure that as he goes down the road -- as the agency goes down the road that they're ready and prepared to be able to tackle these problems that it has in front of it and so he's got a very big challenge of trying simultaneously to deal with the outside and the inside problems. That's going to really test his considerable management skills.
NNAMDIDonald Kettl is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, how social media are complicating and sometimes undermining courtroom procedures. We'll talk with two judges. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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